Andy Larsen: Median bill got less than 10 minutes of floor time (& more fun facts from 2023 legislature)

Lawmakers hit a high-water mark for number of bills passed — and you may be surprised by their floor debate stats.

Last week, the Utah Legislature wrapped up its 2023 general session by passing the most bills in its recorded history.

We know that because Brigham Young University professor of political science Adam Brown has done the research, showing just how Utah’s Legislature operates from year to year in a number of different ways.

His work is pretty impressive: He looked at the record 929 bills introduced, analyzing which legislators (and from which parties) were most likely to get their bills on the floor and through the two chambers. He analyzed the 175 hours that Utah’s 104 legislators spend on debating those bills — even using video analysis software to decipher which bill was being debated at each second of the session. And notably, he has most of this data back to 2007, so we can see how Utah’s Legislature might be changing in recent recorded history.

The graphs used in this article are all from Brown’s website; he’s also given us permission to use his data. As you can see, 2023 was a definite high-water mark — so far — of bills introduced and passed by our state’s Legislature.

Adam Brown | BYU (https://adambrown.info/p/research/utah_legislature)

Who is debating these bills? How much time do they spend on the floor discussing them? How do they usually vote? How does partisanship impact the bills that get passed? Here’s the data.

About the legislators

Most Utah House members have not much legislative experience, it turns out. In the House, the average legislator only has 4.9 years of prior terms served in the state Legislature. Only nine of the 75-member body have served for more than 10 years — five Republicans and four Democrats.

Meanwhile, senators have more experience, with an average of 9.6 years in the Legislature (which includes their prior experience in the House, if applicable.) Both levels of experience haven’t changed much in the years for which Brown has data, back to 2007.

Adam Brown | BYU (https://adambrown.info/p/research/utah_legislature)

Brown also has a thorough accounting of the number of bills legislators were able to introduce to the floor, get a vote on, and eventually pass through the legislature. Find your legislator in the list below to see how many floor bills he or she chose to sponsor in the 2023 session:

In the end, Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, introduced the most bills with a whopping 31 — six more than any other legislator. Twenty-nine of those bills were voted on, and 28 were passed. Meanwhile, Rep. Steven Lund, R-Manti, was the chief sponsor on zero bills this year.

How are the bills discussed?

Brown’s solution for analyzing the amount of time the House and Senate spend on the floor is really quite clever: the two chambers upload video of their time on the floor, and Brown scrapes that data to see what’s happening on a minute-by-minute basis. He has this data back to 2009.

And what did Brown find? The Legislature in both chambers spent a record low amount of time actually on the floor this year; and a further record low in actually debating the bills. Remember, that’s despite a record high in bills introduced!

Adam Brown | BYU (https://adambrown.info/p/research/utah_legislature)

Adam Brown | BYU (https://adambrown.info/p/research/utah_legislature)

I was surprised to see, in general, how little time this is. I understand that members have to take part in off-floor meetings, committee hearings, and so on, and yet to spend only 65 hours in the House and 66 hours in the Senate debating the 929 bills introduced seems somehow insufficient.

And frankly, I’m also discouraged to see how the total time on the floor is decreasing. I wish we had the data to see how legislators are choosing to use their time instead. Is it increasing the amount of time spent in various committees — where at least debate is still public? Or is it in off-record meetings — with their party, lobbyists, development interests, and so forth?

As Brown points out, because the number of bills introduced this year was a record high, the amount of time debating each was a record low. In the end, the median bill introduced this year spent less than 10 minutes on the floor.

Adam Brown | BYU (https://adambrown.info/p/research/utah_legislature)

Furthermore, just voting on each bill takes roughly two minutes, so you can subtract six minutes or so (the Senate votes on each bill twice) for any bill that gets House and Senate consideration. Honestly, we’re under four minutes of wide floor non-voting consideration of the median bill.

There are exceptions. This year, six bills received over an hour of debate: The voucher/teacher raises bill was debated for about two and a half hours, the transgender treatment bill for an hour and 50 minutes. The new flag bill got 77 minutes of debate, a bill on social media for youth received 72 minutes, HB427 on “individual freedom in public education” had 67 minutes in the sun, and the bill changing the rules for state court injunctions received 65 minutes on the floor.

By the way, what’s the deal with all of that non-bill discussion time in the graph above? Brown’s video data breaks that down, too, from this session:

  • 562 minutes come from reports (usually from committees).

  • 474 minutes are downtime, as the chair waits for the legislators to sit, recess time, “sauntering” time, and so forth.

  • 454 minutes are from personal privileges, recognitions, citations and so on.

  • 327 minutes are communications from the other chamber, governor, etc.

  • 212 minutes are used by prayers and the Pledge of Allegiance.

  • And 46 minutes were used by speaker/president remarks, committee of the whole (Congress visits), governor and chief justice visits.

There is some pork here that can be trimmed, that’s for sure. I understand the need for committee reports and communications from other elected officials. I am less thrilled — okay, that’s an understatement — about the time used on downtime, personal privileges, recognitions, prayer, the Pledge of Allegiance and so forth. That’s especially true when the time spent on those aspects dwarfs the amount of time spent discussing hundreds of combined other bills that will impact Utahns.

Finally, I’m interested by the absentee rate: the percentage of legislators absent on any given vote. On average, 13% of senators were absent on an average floor vote this session, while 6% of House representatives were.

Adam Brown | BYU (https://adambrown.info/p/research/utah_legislature)

How are votes distributed?

But when you look at the votes themselves, it’s easy to see why the absentee rate might be higher than you’d expect. No matter how you slice it, most of the time, votes are passed by such a wide margin that it doesn’t really matter who is in attendance.

Overall this session, 77% of House votes passed with 90% or more of the whole body in agreement on an issue. In the Senate, that number jumped up to 87%.

Adam Brown | BYU (https://adambrown.info/p/research/utah_legislature)

In fact, on the average vote, 93% of House representatives and 97% of Senators are on the winning side. Wow!

Adam Brown | BYU (https://adambrown.info/p/research/utah_legislature)

Most of the time, that wide majority ends in “yes.” Only in 3.9% of House votes did a bill not pass. That declines to 1.4% in the Senate.

Adam Brown | BYU (https://adambrown.info/p/research/utah_legislature)

Brown keeps a list of those rare close votes here.

Of course, the Utah Legislature is heavily Republican. But Democrats very frequently vote on the same side as Republicans in the Legislature. In the House, only 14% of votes were so-called “party-line” votes, where the majority of Republicans and the majority of Democrats voted in opposite ways. In the Senate, that number was only 9%.

Adam Brown | BYU (https://adambrown.info/p/research/utah_legislature)

How do parties make a difference?

So where in the data do we see a difference in the two parties? Truthfully, it’s in the bills that are sponsored by representatives and senators from each party — there’s a clear difference in the likelihood a bill introduced gets a vote, and then is eventually passed, depending on which party sponsors a bill.

First, let’s look at bill vote rates. This session, 80% of Republican-sponsored bills got a vote on the floor. Only 48% of Democrat-sponsored bills did.

Adam Brown | BYU (https://adambrown.info/p/research/utah_legislature)

As you might expect, Republican-sponsored bills are also more likely to be passed. This year, 67% of Republican-sponsored bills were passed by both chambers, while 34% of Democrat-sponsored bills were.

Adam Brown | BYU (https://adambrown.info/p/research/utah_legislature)

Both the 48% of Democrat-sponsored bills to receive a vote and the 34% of bills passed are record lows in Brown’s recorded history, back to 2007.

You can see why many Legislature observers, such as our Robert Gehrke, feel that we were at a high-water mark in terms of partisanship and Republican favoritism in this session given this data. On the other hand, if 85%-90% of votes are decided without the influence of parties changing the outcome of the proceedings, those who argue that partisanship levels overall are still not very high have a reasonable point, too.

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